Songs from the Wood - one of four posts: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter - the cornerstones of this blog, about the birds I see through the year. Spring is about woods, dawn, birdsong and the Dawn Chorus - a prelude to Summer. Follow me, if you will - share your favourite birdsongs ... for others to hear.
Yonder, in the corners of the mead, the purple darkness of the awakening wood beyond, the atmosphere is full of some ethereal vapour. The sunshine stays in the air here as if the greening hedges hold the wind from brushing it away. After Richard Jefferies.
Low and plaintive comes the notes of a Lapwing - the arrival of spring - an early Chiffchaff: ‘ Chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff ! ‘ – the double notes hanging in the still air …
An Early Morning Walk
So another year – another Spring: as I walk the lanes I find Violet, Celandine and Snowdrop; Buttercup in the meadow - just as Richard Jefferies did over a century ago.
... among the meadows the buttercups in spring are as innumerable as ever and as pleasant to look upon.
There is still joy and wonderment in the petal of the buttercup which … has an enamel of gold; with the nail you may scrape it off, leaving still a yellow ground, but not reflecting the sunlight like the outer layer. From the centre the golden pollen covers the fingers with dust like that from the wing of a butterfly ….
In the bunches of grass and by the gateways the germander speedwell looks like tiny specks of blue stolen, like Prometheus’ fire, from the summer sky. From the spotted orchis leaves in April to the honeysuckle-clover in June, and the rose and the honeysuckle itself, the meadow has changed in nothing that delights the eye ...
Hawthorn and Blackthorn, Ash and Willow, with their varied hues of green in spring, Briar and Bramble, with Blackberries and Hips later on, are still there as in the old, old time. Bluebells, Violets – the same old favourite flowers–may be found on the mounds or sheltered, near by hedges, thick and high, and full of flowers, birds, and living creatures, of shade and flecks of sunshine dancing up and down the bark of the trees.
And Gorse ….. bright yellow Gorse flowers are at their best in early Spring although they stay in flower most of the year, hence the saying ‘When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season’. When the sun shines bright, the flowers smell of a heady aroma of coconut and vanilla.
The Woods too – dominated by Birch and Alder in the wetter areas – tinting the landscape purple in the early morning light; with gold and yellow green of ancient Oak and Ash higher up lit by the rising sun – are full of birdsong; Song Thrush, Coal Tit and Chaffinch; later to be joined in song by our spring/summer migrants – Chiffchaff among the first, soon followed by Willow Warbler, Redstart, Wood Warbler and Blackcap: Songs from the Wood.
When I lived in Wiltshire (1970s) I loved to walk in Savernake Forest, especially in Spring; walking in the footsteps of Richard Jefferies -
At such times ... I have gone to ramble day after day, forgetting the world and myself in its endless woods. The Hills and the Vale 1909.
Savernake was originally wood-pasture grazed with livestock – a mosaic of woodland, coppice, common land, rolling downland, and small, hidden farms. One of the mysterious and magical places of Wiltshire – an enchanted place; ethereal in its liquid greenness and shady places under the ancient trees; multicoloured sunbeams filtering through the woodland glades, where butterflies and faeries dance; the rides and grand avenues heavenly lit by the rising sun - a woodland cathedral ...
.... A little farther and the ground declines; through the tall fern we come upon a valley. But the soft warm sunshine, the stillness, the solitude, have induced an irresistible idleness. Let us lie down upon the fern, on the edge of the green vale, and gaze up at the slow clouds as they drift across the blue vault. The subtle influence of Nature penetrates every limb and every vein, fills the soul with a perfect contentment, an absence of all wish except to lie there, half in sunshine, half in shade, for ever in a Nirvana of indifference and to all but the exquisite delight of simply living. The wind in the tree-tops overhead sighs in soft music, and ever and anon a leaf falls with a slight rustle to mark time. The clouds go by in rhythmic motion, the ferns whisper verses in the ear, the beams of the wondrous sun in endless song ...
Time means nothing here – the sun moves across the sky - still I’m lying here at one with the forest - the sun and sky. I live through the trees. Day turns to night. The woods are sleeping now, the earth slumbers. A full moon rises in the inky black of the night.
Listening, thinking of nothing, simply living in the sound of the [wood, the moans, groans, creaks and rustles] - the life and intelligence inherent in nature; it grows upon the mind. I have sometimes thought that never does the world seem more alive and watchful of us than on a still, moonlight night in a solitary wood, when the dusky green foliage is silvered by the beams, and all visible objects and the white lights and black shadows in the intervening spaces seem instinct with spirit.
A Wren sings ...
Shadows of light. Dawn approaches … After W H Hudson (Birds and Man – 1915)
A Fine Fresh Morning
A pale cerulean-blue sky – crisscrossed with misty white vapour trails of planes - a modern art canvas; paint casually, thrown from the artists brush; white clouds tinged salmon-pink hanging over the blue-grey mountains; just before sunrise – white wreaths of mist lingering over the fields mirroring the vapour trails above. A lone Buzzard calls.
Another spring morning long ago - a treasured memory now - I remember waking to the incessant chatter of House Sparrow and the garbled chuckling, whistling and mimicry of Starling from the cottage eaves and chimney pots; Green Woodpecker laughing from the nearby Ash; And Cuckoo calling from the copse across the fields. The scent of early May - apple blossom and garden flowers in the warming sun. A heady romance ...
Play these together but in a slightly staggered sequence and you will hear a pretty good approximation of the birdsong, or at least my memory of it, I woke up to on many a fine fresh spring morning - the scent of the morning air I leave to your imagination.
Increased activity on the housetop marks the approach of spring and summer exactly as in the woods and .... When the first dandelion is opening on a sheltered bank, and the pale-blue field veronica flowers in the waste corner, the sparrows begin to chirp: in the dead of winter they are silent; ... as spring advances, they [the sparrows] sing--it is a short song, it is true, but still it is singing--perched at the edge of a sunny wall. The Starling whistle(s) from his favourite ledge. Day by day he is heard more and more, till, when the first green spray appears on the hawthorn, he visits the roof continually. Besides the roof-tree and the chimney-pot, he has his own special place, sometimes under an eave, sometimes between two gables; and as I sit writing, I can see a pair who have a ledge which slightly projects from the wall between the eaves and the highest window. This was made by the builder for an ornament; but my two starlings consider it their own particular possession.
Listen, and you will hear the tap, tap of the woodpecker, and see! away he goes in undulating flight with a wild, unearthly chuckle, his green and gold plumage glancing in the sun, like the parrots of far-distant lands ....
... “There's the cuckoo!” Everyone looked up and listened as the notes came indoors from the copse by the garden. He had returned to the same spot for the fourth time. The tallest birch-tree—it is as tall as an elm—stands close to the hedge, about three parts of the way up it, and it is just round there that the cuckoo generally sings. From the garden gate it is only a hundred yards to this tree, walking beside the hedge which extends all the way, so that the very first time the cuckoo calls upon his arrival he is certain to be heard. His voice travels that little distance with ease, and can be heard in every room.
The First Birds of Spring
Yellow is the colour of my true love's hair In the mornin' when we rise In the mornin' when we rise That's the time, that's the time ... - Donovan Colours 1965.
Today I wake to another fine fresh spring morning - the pale sun just a glimmer through the pines atop the ancient hill fort - the last of the snows lingering in the hedge bottoms and woodland edge below - a profusion of Primrose pale yellow along the roadside banks topped with bright yellow Gorse - the first golden yellow Buttercup in the field; Daffodil and Dandelion, Celandine too, colour the garden lawn - yellow is the colour...
As the sun draws the year on - the Great Tit, Song Thrush and Chaffinch try out their spring song - incomplete and hesitant at first - but getting stronger and more confident every day. The Robin singing all winter, sings all day and is the last to cease in the evening, outstaying even the thrush.
Yet it is the arrival of the first spring/summer migrants, timed to coincide with the greening hedges and woods, early blossom and the first hatch of insects that says Spring is truly here.
Listen for the first of the spring migrants - Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Sedge Warbler. Their songs - the simple up and down notes of the Chiffchaff, the joyful liquid cadence of the Willow Warbler and the complex and varied song of the Sedge Warbler have inspired many a writer and poet ....
For Edward Thomas the Chiffchaff was a sign of spring that he looked for every year.
Nothing so convinces me, year after year, that Spring has come and cannot be repulsed, though checked it may be, as this least of songs. In the blasting or dripping weather which may ensue, the Chiffchaff is probably unheard; but he is not silenced. I heard him on March 19 when I was fifteen, and I believe not a year has passed without my hearing him within a day or two of that date. I always expect him and always hear him. ...
... It was here, [Froyle Park] and at eleven, that I first heard the chiffchaff saying, " Chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff ! " A streamlet darted out of the park towards the Wey, and on the other side of the road, and below it, had to itself a little steep coomb of ash trees. An oak had been felled on the coomb side, and a man was clearing the brush-wood round it, but the small bird's double note, almost as regular as the ticking of a clock, though often coming to an end on the first half, sounded very clear in the coomb. He sang as he flitted among the swaying ash tops in that warm, cloudy sun. I thought he sang more shrilly than usual, something distractedly. But I was satisfied. But for the wind, I should have heard him yesterday. I went on more cheerfully, as if each note had been the ham-mering of a tiny nail into Winter's coffin.
From “In the Pursuit of Spring” - published in 1913.
And from the pen of Richard Jefferies ....
Loudest of all, the chiff-chaff sings in the ash woods, bare and leafless, while yet the sharp winds rush between the poles, rattling them together, and bringing down the dead twigs to the earth. The violets are difficult to find, few, and scattered; but his clear note rings in the hushes of the eastern breeze, encouraging the flowers. It is very pleasant indeed to hear him. One's hands are dry, and the skin rough with the east wind; the trunks of the trees look dry, and the lichens have shrivelled on the bark; the brook looks dark; grey dust rises and drifts, and the grey clouds hurry over; but the chiff-chaff sings, and it is certainly spring. The first green leaves which the elder put forth in January have been burned up by frost, and the woodbine, which looked as if it would soon be entirely green then, has been checked, and remains a promise only. The chiff-chaff tells the buds of the coming April rains and the sweet soft intervals of warm sun. He is a sure forerunner. He defies the bitter wind; his little heart is as true as steel. He is one of the birds in which I feel a personal interest, as if I could converse with him. The willow-wren, his friend, comes later, and has a gentler, plaintive song.
Edward Grey also notes the coming of Spring by the first hearing of the Chiffchaff.
To those who mark the progress of the year by the song of birds, the first hearing of the chiff-chaff is the beginning of a new stage. Hitherto we have noted the coming into song of resident birds ; in the chiff-chaff we hear a bird proclaiming not only that he is singing, but that he has arrived. He has accomplished, since we last heard him, two long journeys, one away from us in the autumn, and now the journey of return. Alone of all the warblers, the chiff-chaff has given us the right to expect him in March ; he is the forerunner of the rush of song-birds that is on its way to us and will arrive in April, and thereafter enrich our woods, meadows and gardens with still further variety and quality of song. This is why the first hearing of a chiff-chaff moves us so each spring. He is a symbol, a promise, an assurance of what is to come. In himself the chiff-chaff is a very individual and peculiar little bird. I will not attempt to define the word “warble” or “warbler.” The term has become so inseparably attached to certain summer birds that there is no choice but to continue the use of it ; though if it is to be used at all, there is no justification for its being restricted to the class of birds that are habitually called “ warblers.” There is, however, no conceivable utmost stretch of definition by which the term “warble” can be made applicable to the sound that the chiff-chaff makes. On the other hand, if anything is to be called “ warbling,” the song of the willow-warbler must certainly be put in this category : and the chiffchaff is so nearly allied to the willow-warbler that they must be thought of as members of one family. In appearance, habits, food, habitat and manner of nest the two birds have very close resemblance to each other ; so close as to make the difference of song remarkable. By the season and manner of utterance the chiff-chaff gives us clearly to understand that he intends his notes to be a song, and as such I, at any rate, accept it from him ... .
... Like other song-birds, the chiff-chaff becomes comparatively silent when strenuously engaged in feeding the young ; but some time in the latter part of June he will for some days “ sing ” throughout the day as if he had nothing else to do. The notes then have not quite the vigour of April and May, but they are even more frequently and continuously repeated. Then comes the moult, and the bird falls silent till September, when energy is restored and expresses itself in a subdued repetition of the “ song ” — a sort of quiet farewell before the chiff-chaff leaves us on its long journey Southwards. ...
Note: It has been shown recently that not even the song is a reliable means to differentiate between the two leaf warblers commonly known as ‘willowchiffs’1
A Song for May
As the sun warms the earth and days get longer; the May blossom like drifts of snow along the hedgerow; birdsong fills the early mornings in the ‘Great Chorus’ as Edward Grey called it.
In ‘The Hills and Vale’ Richard Jefferies wrote ... ‘The sound of many birds singing comes from the hedge across the meadow;...finches and linnets, thrush and chiff-chaff, wren and whitethroat, and others farther away, whose louder notes only reach. The singing is so mixed and interwoven, and is made of so many notes, it seems as if it were the [Willow] leaves singing—the countless leaves—as if they had voices.’
While the woodlands may resound to the voices of more exotic birds such as Blackcap and Nightingale, back in the garden, the Song Thrush may strike up well before dawn. Soon he will be followed by the Robin, Blackbird, Wren, Garden Warbler, Chiffchaff, Hedge Sparrow and Chaffinch. There is no fixed order in which each species takes its cue from the eastern sky, but there is a genuine tendency for some to start earlier than others. Indeed Wren, Robin, Song Thrush and Blackbird often burst into song well before daybreak.
Reproduced from an article prepared by Jefferey Boswall for the British Library Sound Archive.
The Dawn Chorus
Orchestrate your own ‘Chorus’ - play some, or all of the audio clips below - start with the Song Thrush, which has the longest running time, then gradually bring in the others .... you have yourself a chorus .... Listen!
There are other spring songsters of course which I could/should have included: Coal Tit, Willow Warbler, Redstart, Wood Warbler, and Blackcap; Everyone has their favourites: what are yours - leave a comment; share your favourite birdsongs, for others to hear.
Nature Notes - Spring (2018)
Today the Pied Wagtail are back. Yet only a few days ago there was a late snowfall – the birds silenced. The Maple masquerading as a Flowering Cherry as the snow fell from its branches – its own mini snowstorm. Posted March 11
After the snow the first Buttercup
Wren, Dunnock and Robin on the woodpile outside the kitchen window early this morning. The Dunnock In flirtatious courtship; the Robin already paired. The Wren busily and vigourously preening like someone having a cold shower. With a quick shake and he was gone. Posted March 23
A misty start to a cold grey morning with a light Easterly wind. Had brightened up by mid morning with sun and blue skies for the rest of the day. At lunchtime an unusual visitor to the feeders – a pair of Goldfinch. An infrequent spring visitor to the garden, usually seen feeding on weed seeds on the driveway to the house. A lovely surprise. Posted March 24,
The first day when it really felt like Spring – warm enough to sit outside with a mid-morning cup of coffee with closed eyes just listening to the birdsong – the background chatter of House Sparrow, the ‘Pink Pink’ of a Chaffinch, Robin singing no matter what time of day, a Coal Tit in the distance – all overshadowed by a Mistle Thrush singing strongly from the Churchyard Yews up the lane a bit. Posted March 26
A cold but bright start to the day with a light fresh covering of snow on the mountains. Little bird life about – but a female Great Spotted Woodpecker put in an appearance at the feeders early on and a little later three Long Tailed Tit passed through the garden pausing briefly at the feeders before moving on. Posted March 29,
Pair of Goldfinch on the feeders this morning. I hear them all the time so hopefully nesting nearby. Four Swallow – the first of the year – over the garden late morning. Posted April 25
Has Spring finally arrived! A few sunny days and the Blackthorn has finally burst into flower and leaf. Bluebell carpet the woods. Swallow back hawking flies across the fields. And the first Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Redstart singing from nearby woods. Pied Wagtail on the Stone walls. The first Butterfly – a Male Orange Tip. Posted May 5
Another glorious spring day – the hottest so far! My Lady’s Smock in the fields and more Orange tip. The first Horse Chestnut candles. A female Great Spotted Woodpecker on the feeders first thing. A few Whitethroat singing from the hedges bordering the fields later. Blackthorn hedge regenerating nicely where the two hybrid Black Poplar were felled a couple of years ago. Posted May 7,
A lone Buzzard circling on thermals over the fields today lunchtime. Both Great Spotted Woodpecker on the feeders early morning. A Jay in the garden yesterday morning – mobbed by House Sparrow – so didn’t hang about. Whitethroat calling from the hedges. Posted May 21
The Hawthorn or May is now past it’s best having been in flower for most of the month. The hedge banks and roadsides a profusion of white cow parsley. Fields are full of Buttercup and Daisy. Posted May 24
Both Great Spotted Woodpecker continue to visit the feeders daily. Great Tit, Blue Tit , Chaffinch, Dunnock, Robin and Wren, and House Sparrow present all day long. Blackbird put in an occasional appearance but a marked absence of Nuthatch and Coal Tit. Posted May 25
Having commented yesterday that I hadn’t seen the Coal Tit in a while – a pair early this morning on the feeders outside the breakfast room window. A Male Blackbird and Goldfinch singing from out the back by the Field Maple a little later. Posted May 26
An overcast day with some thundery showers and a warm westerly. A single Buzzard quartering the field next to the Wood late morning. A Nuthatch put in a brief appearance at tea time with a single Coal Tit earlier in the afternoon. Posted May 27
A lovely fresh sunshiny morning after overnight rain – the cow parsley in the lane bowed – making it difficult to pass without getting soaking wet. Goldfinch, like musical notes on the telegraph wires; a Blackcap singing from the copse – my first for this year – to the backdrop of Woodpigeon ‘cooing’. Posted May 28
The title of this post was inspired by a classic song from the ‘70s - an Ian Anderson penned song on the 1977 Album of the same name by Jethro Tull. The album takes as its theme the natural and supernatural inhabitants of the woodlands of old England - a celebration of British pagan folklore and the countryside life. Take time to listen and you will hear - ‘Songs from the Wood’.
- The identification of these two leaf warblers in the field, commonly known as ‘willowchiffs’, is made all the more difficult by both species ‘copying’ the song of the other at times in what has come to be known as mixed or switched singing.
Willow Warbler singing a mixed Willow Warbler/Chiffchaff song
On 26th April 2008, whilst at the Newport Wetland Reserve, I found a Willow Warbler on the Saltmarsh Grasslands singing mixed songs including both Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff syllables. Some songs appeared to be standard Willow Warbler, however, on occasions the bird would introduce a song with a varying number of ‘tsilp tsalp’ Chiffchaff syllables.
Mixed singing is widely, if uncommonly, reported in Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff (e.g. Fray 2007; Frost 1986; Norman 1985). The songs usually consist of Chiffchaff-type syllables followed by Willow Warbler song of varying length (Cramp 1992). Whilst natural hybridisation is known to occur between the two species (e.g. Asteling Strandberg 1998; McCarthy 2006) and hybrids have been reported singing mixed song (da Prato & da Prato 1986); mixed singers have usually been reported to be Willow Warblers (e.g. Lloyd 1926; Butlin 1940; Hopkins 2006). However, the behaviour has also been reported to occur in Chiffchaff (e.g. Wilson 1986) and the first genetically determined mixed singer was a Chiffchaff (Bensch et al. 2001). Hybridisation does not appear to explain the existence of most mixed singing birds, it is more likely that this behaviour is the result of anomalies in the song learning process.
It seems likely that consistent ‘song switching’ most-frequently involves simple song copying rather than indicating a hybrid between the two species. One species may imitate the song of the other when a close congener is seen as a potential territorial competitor. Conversely, consistent ‘mixed song’, involving a much more complex mix of individual notes from two species, seems to me less easy to explain from ‘imitation’ and may perhaps be a stronger indication of hybrid origin. Occasionally, though, both ‘song switching’ and ‘mixed singing’ are encountered from a single individual, so there is no clear-cut divide.